There are other problems that are more complicated, embedded more deeply in the way the community has grown, and residents are preoccupied by one in particular: special education. Whenever I spent time with community leaders, we were often interrupted by Hasidim coming up and asking for help on behalf of a disabled child. “A nephew, a grandson, a friend,” says Yehuda Weissmandl, a Hasidic homebuilder who is vice-president of the East Ramapo School Board. “I hear it every day.” He himself has a niece with a rare, debilitating chromosomal disorder called cri du chat. “It’s French for ‘the cat’s cry,’ ” he told me. “When she was born, she yelped like a little pussycat.”
There are many recessive genetic diseases to which Ashkenazi Jews are prone, biological traces, in a way, of the community’s history of isolation and persecution. No precise epidemiological studies have been done to determine whether Hasidic communities have more genetically disabled children than average, but Yaniv Erlich, who studies the genetics of the ultra-Orthodox at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, points out the obvious: that an isolated and highly procreative community will provide ample opportunities for these traits to express themselves.
For years, the custom among Hasidic parents of severely disabled children was to hide them—“to put them in a home somewhere,” says Feivel Mashinsky, a diamond dealer who runs the Monsey charity Kupath Ezra. When so much depended upon marriage prospects, a disabled child was a bad advertisement for his siblings, and a source of shame. But over the past generation, that has changed dramatically. During the late eighties, an Orthodox Jewish educator named Harriet Feldman, who has a severely disabled son, was spending a great deal of time in his secular special-education class when she began to pay attention to a small Hasidic boy whose disabilities were severe. Each day he would sit in the corner emitting guttural noises, his hands twitching nervously; the teachers told Feldman he had no ability to communicate at all. One day Feldman thought she could detect a throaty pattern in the moaning: “Cha-cha-cha.” She watched his fingers moving. He wasn’t spasming, she thought; he was kneading. “Yoni,” Feldman said to the boy, “are you making challah?” His head snapped up; he grinned. “He had comprehension, and they thought he was just making noise,” Feldman told me. In 1991, she founded a special-education school in Spring Valley, Ohr V’Daas, dedicated to working with the severely disabled in a Jewish environment. She wanted the community to welcome these children, not shun them.
Feldman’s message, for a community accustomed to educating its own, had a powerful appeal. But private special education is prohibitively expensive for most Hasidic families. The East Ramapo School Board can, in certain circumstances, direct New York State funds to pay for special-needs children to attend nonpublic schools, but only if it deems the public school less appropriate. By the early aughts, dozens of families were petitioning the school board, arguing that appropriateness included a familiar, culturally sheltered environment. The district refused most of these requests. Many parents appealed, but the district won most of those, too.
The Hasidic parents had one obvious recourse: Vote in more-amenable board members. Starting in 2003, Orthodox candidates began running in every school-board election. Once they gained a majority, the district began to grant many more special-needs placement requests. It has granted so many, in fact, that the New York State Department of Education has formally notified the district that it is violating the law. And the topic of special education has usurped the board’s agenda so completely that, according to former board member Suzanne Young-Mercer, “we haven’t talked about regular education in five years.”
The Hasidic political emergence in East Ramapo is often told as a story of aggression, of a growing community discovering its own power. But it is also one of deep compassion and desperation. A separatist community can only remain apart so long as it is able to provide everything it needs from within. The needs of the disabled children were both a consequence of the community’s insularity and a demonstration of its limitations. They beckoned the Hasidim into the political world.
“And maybe now,” says Mashinsky, “it is coming back a little bit to haunt us.”
Even the mildest meetings of the East Ramapo School Board—ones when no board members call one another moral degenerates, when no references are made to Treblinka—contain a fascinating tableau: At a meeting in March, soon after Young-Mercer and the second remaining secular board members had resigned, seven yarmulked men looked down from the dais at a crowd of angry students and parents, most of them black and Hispanic. A few members of the board speak only rarely, and on the dais there is often an atmosphere of uninterest and distraction. Sub-dais BlackBerry manipulation is observable. After the main district business is conducted, but before the public has a chance to speak, the board usually departs for private executive sessions that sometimes last hours. This infuriates many of the students and parents, who often must wait past midnight on a school night in order to speak. During one recent late-night interlude, a group of students held a teach-in, then sang the protest anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”